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Bad bite: A tick can make you allergic to red meat

Meet The Tick Causing Allergies To Red Meat


A bug can turn you into a vegetarian, or at least make you swear off red meat. Doctors across the nation are seeing a surge of sudden meat allergies in people bitten by a certain kind of tick.

This bizarre problem was only discovered a few years ago but is growing as the ticks spread from the Southwest and the East to more parts of the United States. In some cases, eating a burger or a steak has landed people in the hospital with severe allergic reactions.

Few patients seem aware of the risk, and even doctors are slow to recognize it. As one allergist who has seen 200 cases on New York's Long Island said, "Why would someone think they're allergic to meat when they've been eating it their whole life?"

The culprit is the Lone Star tick, named for Texas, a state famous for meaty barbecues. The tick is now found throughout the South and the eastern half of the United States.

Researchers think some other types of ticks also might cause meat allergies; cases have been reported in Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Japan and Korea.

Here's how it happens: The bugs harbor a sugar that humans don't have, called alpha-gal. The sugar is also is found in red meat - beef, pork, venison, rabbit - and even some dairy products. It's usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested.

But a tick bite triggers an immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim's bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat and encounters the sugar.

It happened last summer to Louise Danzig, a 63-year-old retired nurse from Montauk on eastern Long Island.

Hours after eating a burger, "I woke up with very swollen hands that were on fire with itching," she said. As she headed downstairs, "I could feel my lips and tongue were getting swollen," and by the time she made a phone call for help, "I was losing my ability to speak and my airway was closing."

She had had recent tick bites, and a blood test confirmed the meat allergy.

"I'll never have another hamburger, I'm sure," Danzig said. "I definitely do not want to have that happen to me again."

In Mount Juliet near Nashville, Tennessee, 71-year-old Georgette Simmons went to a steakhouse on June 1 for a friend's birthday and had a steak.

"About 4:30 in the morning I woke up and my body was on fire. I was itching all over and I broke out in hives. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before," she said.

A few weeks later, for a brother's birthday, she ordered another steak. Hours later she woke "almost hysterical" with a constricted throat in addition to hives and a burning sensation. She, too, recalled tick bites.

Dr. Robert Valet at Vanderbilt University said Simmons was one of two patients he diagnosed with the meat allergy that day. He warned her it could be worse next time.

"I never did eat a lot of red meat anyway but when I go out I like a nice fillet. Right now I wouldn't even eat hamburger meat," Simmons said.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, "I see two to three new cases every week," said Dr. Scott Commins, who with a colleague, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, published the first paper tying the tick to the illness in 2011.

One of the first cases they saw was a bow hunter who had eaten meat all his life but landed in the emergency department several times with allergic reactions after eating meat. More cases kept turning up in people who were outdoors a lot.

"It seemed something geographical. We thought at first it might be a squirrel parasite," Commins said. "It took us a while to sort of put everything together" and finger the tick, he said.

Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergy specialist on eastern Long Island, an area with many ticks, has seen nearly 200 cases over the last three years. At least 30 involved children, and the youngest was 4 or 5. She is keeping a database to study the illness with other researchers.

"It is bizarre," she said. "It goes against almost anything I've ever learned as an allergist," because the symptoms can occur as long as eight hours after eating meat, rather than immediately, and the culprit is a sugar - a type of carbohydrate - whereas most food allergies are caused by proteins, she said.

Allergic reactions can be treated with antihistamines to ease itching, and more severe ones with epinephrine. Some people with the allergy now carry epinephrine shots in case they are stricken again.

Doctors don't know if the allergy is permanent. Some patients show signs of declining antibodies over time, although those with severe reactions are understandably reluctant to risk eating meat again. Even poultry products such as turkey sausage sometimes contain meat byproducts and can trigger the allergy.

"We don't really know yet how durable this will be" or whether it's lifelong, like a shellfish allergy, Valet said.

The meat allergy "does not seem to be lifelong, but the caveat is, additional tick bites bring it back," Commins said.

Michael Abley, who is 74 and lives in Surry, Virginia, near Williamsburg, comes from a family of cattle ranchers and grew up eating meat. He developed the meat allergy more than a decade ago, although it was only tied to the tick in more recent years.

"Normally I can eat a little bit of dairy," he said, but some ice cream landed him in an emergency room about a month ago. He admitted having had recent bug bites.

"I'm surrounded by ticks here," he said.

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Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
rjen164497 August 07 2014 at 6:02 PM

There is an epidemic going on in many parts of the country with Lime and Babeisos desease from ticks. The EPA and evronmentalist don't want it known so the CDC is down playing it. Just like the fires in other parts of the country are also caused by the do gooder evronmentalist. The deer population is causing billions in damage and medical cost as well as suffering. All in the name of Evronmentalist saving forrests and deer at the expense of man.

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5 replies
IBruzEZ August 11 2014 at 9:02 AM

Ticks, misquitoes, many other bugs carry all kinds of bacteria, protozoa in their bites that cause diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, lyme, malaria. These bugs are not "scared" of people and move into our areas. Check your pets people. If they come into your yard they will multiply there very rapidly.

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2 replies
kcarthey IBruzEZ August 11 2014 at 10:01 AM

Check yourself as well. Good post. Some of the diseases ticks carry will kill your dog

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JOHN COLE IBruzEZ August 11 2014 at 10:33 AM

You check your self's First then you pet!

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laclone August 11 2014 at 11:13 AM

HEADLINE: "U.S.-based Terrorist group develops Bio-weapon! Attacks increasing across nation! Thousands suffer!"

Scientist of the terrorist organization PETA have bio-engineered a tick-like insect into existence, and released it into vast areas of the United States.

The bite of this insect renders a human incapable of eating tasty animal meats by making the victim allergic to meat, and can cause death if someone bitten does so.

"Elsie Akbar!" chants PETA activist across the nation, as members strap on tick-infested bombs, and go forth into public city, state and national parks to release this fiendish bio-weapon upon an unsuspecting American public.

Local authorities admit that there is little they can do to stop these cowardly attacks.
"Without air strikes on those people who don't eat meat, wear fur or leather, we can't stop this!" said one who can't be identified because he was an unauthorized spokesman.

The White Castle has yet to respond on this threat.

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2 replies
traceymarie624 laclone August 11 2014 at 12:05 PM

that was hilarious

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1 reply
b.shagnasty traceymarie624 August 11 2014 at 1:19 PM

Go read "Six-Legged Soldiers; using insects as weapons of war".......by Jeffrey A. Lockwood.
I have a feeling that the reality of things in his book you might find...not so hilarious.

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abourge458 laclone August 11 2014 at 7:25 PM

The dreaded PETA-tick kills every predator animal in the world, including dogs and cats.
Non-predator population EXPLODES!.
Billions of rotting carcasses of starved herbivores litter the landscape! Water everywhere and even the air becomes infested with harmful bacteria.
Earth rots to death.

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leslie August 11 2014 at 12:46 PM

and being bit by the Fruit Fly will make you gay?

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FRED August 11 2014 at 5:53 AM

This is just more BS by PETA.

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1 reply
Michele FRED August 11 2014 at 6:16 AM

Its possibe because they want to control the world.

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toneitup August 11 2014 at 12:47 PM

No Burger? that would TICK me off!

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kcarthey August 11 2014 at 9:59 AM

Of all known insects, ticks are perhaps the most dangerous in their ability to mutate and to carry various diseases. Origninating in North Central Europe, they were transported globally by the early explorers to all parts of the world and in each assumed different sizes, shapes and colors, adapted to different habitats ranging from tropical sands to wooded mountain passes and caused death and suffering not only to humans and mamals but to all species. Very evil things.

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1 reply
hokanut kcarthey August 11 2014 at 10:50 PM

Roll a hot match head on them and they'll back out. Whatever you do don't just pull on them. You'll break the head off under your or your animals skin.

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Mike Mahn August 11 2014 at 2:21 PM

My son had such a tick bite while hiking in Colordao last year. Reaction included hives. Allergic to meat from 4-legged animals. Chicken & turkey no problem. After 6 months, he was able to eat small quantities of red meat again without problem. Now, he's back to normal, but still keeps epi-pin in his backpack.

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Marven Gardens August 11 2014 at 12:57 PM

These ticks are a great way to lower your triglycerides. Vegetarians like myself have no worries.

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1 reply
hokanut Marven Gardens August 11 2014 at 10:51 PM

Vegans are immune to lyme?

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tinks8981 August 11 2014 at 1:12 PM

I don't worry...do not eat red meat...another good reason to not eat.

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1 reply
lizdeda1 tinks8981 August 11 2014 at 4:23 PM

Exactly. The only survivors shall be vegetarians/vegans... We shall rule the world!! Bwahahaha!!!!

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